San Fermin and Behaviorist’s Stephen Chen on Adding ‘Weird Colors’ to Pop Music

Welcome back to our interview series, Incorrect Music, curated by guitarist, singer, and composer Lora-Faye Åshuvud (of the band Arthur Moon). In this series, we present intimate conversations with artists who are striving to push the boundaries of their process and craft. Join our weekly newsletter to get more insights like this into how professional artists are making music and how you can apply those lessons to your own music.

Behaviorist is the solo project of multi-instrumentalist Stephen Chen, who plays saxophone in the art-rock band San Fermin. The latest single “Hard to Please,” which features vocals from Kristin Slipp (Cuddle Magic, Dirty Projectors), shows off Chen’s sharp ear for hooks and his playful approach to the language and phrasing of pop. Chen shares our affinity here at Incorrect Music for breaking the rules, so he often finds himself moving away from writing vocal lines on his saxophone.

“My training makes me hyper-aware of the melody/harmony relationship,” he says, “which often prevents me from coming up with awesome ‘wrong notes’ in the melody.” Simplicity, though, is key in his Behaviorist project. Chen doesn’t want the experimentation to feel forced or self-conscious. “I used to want to write complex music to prove some kind of point… [but] I am realizing that that impulse, while creatively nurturing in many ways, has held back my songwriting craft because it makes me dissatisfied with simplicity.” Instead, there’s this really elegant quality to a Behaviorist song that often makes those “wrong notes” feel satisfying as opposed to disorienting.

The music is full of these little nuggets of “weird color,” as Chen calls them — if you tune in and catch them. But it’s also just simple, smart, well-crafted pop music that you can dance around the kitchen in your underwear to.

– Lora-Faye Åshuvud

Interview by Martin Fowler

There’s a striking push and pull between euphoric dance elements and deep pocket grooves with lyrical themes of self-doubt and confusion in your music. What does this dichotomy do for you, as an artistic expression? Who influenced your music to this end?

I think I’m less artistically motivated by pure emotions, possibly because I’m not really sure if they actually exist. Is there really love without wistfulness, joy without sadness, or anger without self-doubt? I’m interested in the inherent conflicts within feelings, and having a narrative tension between the lyrics and music is a good way for me to access that conflict. I love that moment when you unwrap a layer of a song and realize that its lyrics mean something totally different than what you were expecting. It gives a song a second life and beyond.

Talking about songwriting with Ellis [Ludwig-Leone, of San Fermin] has probably been my main influence on this point. It helps that I’ve played his songs literally hundreds of times and internalized many of those artistic inclinations.

This set of songs you’ve been unfurling one by one (we’ll call it an “EP” for clarity) has a very “live” feeling and produced sound to it. I could see it being recreated note-for-note live, especially by this very talented crew. Did you write or produce it with the idea that you’d want to play it live, or with a particular vision of how these songs would look on a stage?

I’ve tried as best as I can to be less exacting with the live band in terms of the note-for-note recreation of the parts and let them stretch out as much as possible. I love that aspect of going to see a great live show, where you see the band interacting, the push and pull, mistakes and recoveries (if you’re lucky), improvising, changing up the songs, etc. When writing and recording, I was definitely of the mindset that the live experience would just be its own different thing. That also gave me a little more creative freedom in the recorded version because I didn’t have to necessarily worry about how every part would translate live.

That said, closing my eyes and visualizing a live performance can be a great way to solve songwriting problems. Something about live performance instantly points out the weaknesses in your songwriting, which is why I play-tested all the songs a couple times before recording. In some cases, like “Buddies” (to be released soon), the song structure changed significantly as a result.

The inclusion of such pervasive and lush horn elements is a fascinating choice, almost filmic in texture. Obviously, with sax being a primary instrument for you, it makes sense to see it featured so much here. But I’m impressed by the restraint you’ve shown in not making this a “sax record,” and instead executing very appropriate pop-style parts, with occasional highlights of your skills. How did you decide to strike that balance?

The thing with the saxophone is that as soon as someone sees it, they think you’re playing jazz; and they dig up all their preconceived notions about the saxophone. It’s actually really shocking how many reviewers I’ve had say “You know, I just don’t really like the saxophone” as if someone would ever say that about guitar or keyboard or drums. I wish I could say I didn’t care, but it really did make me have to be very careful to not ever lean on the saxophone too much, which is why you hear very few solos on Behaviorist, and even fewer moments where I can show off my jazz chops (however limited they may be).

I really did set out to write an “experimental pop” record and, actually, I think that limitation ultimately helped push it in that direction and keep my focus on the song structure and lyrics. It will be amazing to do a Colin Stetson-esque thing someday, but I don’t know if that is compatible with the Behaviorist name other than being instrumental interludes on the record. Time will tell.

Following up on that, how does your understanding of the saxophone inform your melodic writing as a songwriter and vocalist?

I’m still trying to find where the saxophone comes in as a compositional tool. In some cases, it can hold back my melodic conception because typical horn lines don’t often repeat consecutive notes, whereas that’s often a central feature of vocal lines. And when I’m on the saxophone, my training makes me hyper-aware of the melody/harmony relationship, which often prevents me from coming up with awesome “wrong notes” in the melody. The instrumental line in “Long Division” (below) is one of the few lines written on the saxophone, and I think you can kind of tell. But I’ve gotten much more interesting results by composing a line on a different instrument and attempting to play it on the saxophone.

While this album contains tons of pop elements, there are plenty more obscure and intricate harmonic and rhythmic devices at play. For example, in the chorus on “Dirty Pictures,” there’s a lovely metric modulation halfway through — a dotted eighth hemiola figure hits four times in the span of three beats, and a new downbeat lands at the end of the figure, instead of including the final beat of the bar. There are so many intricate moments like this, how do these arise in your writing, and do they arise consciously?

Thanks! That particular one actually came about while I was fooling around with my sax part on a San Fermin song that has a 3/4 bar at the end of the phrase and realized that the dotted eight figure would nicely line up with the downbeat, as you’ve described. A lot of moments like this come from when I notice a pattern happening in the music and then I try and see what happens if I mess up the pattern, or extend it farther than it’s supposed to go.

I’m always looking for some kind of rationale for why the notes are what they are, as opposed to just arbitrary melodies that I picked out of thin air. That said, the listenability of the music is always a high priority, and so I’m often struggling with deciding to cut a certain thing from a song even though it’s conceptually important. Sometimes it takes a few months for me to realize whether or not a certain passage is “working,” and more often than not, I cut it.

There’s such an even split in male and female vocal duties. What does that writing process look like and how did you choose who to feature, where?

When I started this project, I envisioned the whole thing being sung by a woman and I would just be playing saxophone. I’m not sure exactly when that all changed, but working on this project has made me a lot more comfortable with my own singing voice, so now I’m facing a new challenge of trying to figure out the right usage for the female part. It introduces a whole new narrative dimension, which can be daunting, since there’s still so much to explore just with my own voice. It’s hard not to overthink it, as I want to be hyper-aware of her character so as to avoid the many pitfalls that come with being a male writer for a female voice.

I find that so much nuance comes in the delivery… “Hard to Please” is probably the most lyrically loaded of all the female vocal parts and I’m really happy to have worked with Kristin Slipp whose voice was perfect for the part — aloof, yet sincere, and 100% in control. Ella Joy Meir sang on “Dirty Pictures,” where she’s playing somebody on the other side of a non-communicative chasm of sexual dysfunction — she brought a beautiful, exasperated melancholy to her part.

What was the process of recording this EP like? This band is a bit of a who’s-who in Brooklyn indie, with almost everyone in the credits fronting a project of their own… were you able to get them all in the room at the same time?

No; scheduling musicians like that is nigh impossible. We recorded everything in pieces over the course of a few weeks, as I was still discovering what the record wanted to sound like. I originally thought it would contain many more electronic elements — my sonic references were Sylvan Esso, Phantogram, Alt J, etc. But after Ian [Chang] and Aaron [Liao] laid down the initial drums and bass, I listened to those raw tracks in awe of just how good everything sounded and realized that the final product could afford to be much more “live” sounding — especially on tracks like “Good Guy” (below).

That first session with Ian and Aaron was a great experience, as unbeknownst to me they were all good friends with the engineer, Vishal Nayak [who instructs Soundfly’s free online course, Demo Recording 101], so it ended up being a really fun hang in the studio. That was a first for me, since all my past recording experiences have been characterized by a certain uncomfortable distance between the musicians and engineer. But I kept that feeling going with my friend and San Fermin bandmate Tyler [McDiarmid] recording all the overdubs; those sessions were really fun and low-stress, taking place in various living rooms and vocal studios in Brooklyn.

I took the raw files up to Woodstock, New York where I spent a few days painstakingly choosing drum takes, vocal takes, splicing together takes, etc. before handing it over to a mixer. Based on his work with Iris Lune, I tapped Dalton Harts to do the mixing, and we got to spend a lot of time digging in deep with the songs. He really injected his own ideas and personality, which I loved, and I think it really shows in how deep and complex the mixes are.

There’s a ton of pop-style, diatonic writing that’s very effective and catchy, but you definitely stretch into slightly off-kilter or more obscure harmonic concepts on the record. How do you choose the moments when you stretch the sound away from standard pop progressions, or restrict the sound to more accessible or common progressions?

I know I have a relatively colorful musical vocabulary, and I’m always happy to use it as long as it doesn’t become the point of the song. I used to want to write complex music to prove some kind of point, like I wanted to “bring back jazz,” or trick you into grooving to an odd meter. I am realizing that that impulse, while creatively nurturing in many ways, has held back my songwriting craft because it makes me dissatisfied with simplicity. And of course, it can sound really forced, especially in the pop context.

That said, I do always want to make music that sounds distinctive and has many layers to discover on consecutive listens. So a lot of what I do now is write very simple, catchy melodies (almost always straight pentatonic) but try to figure out a way to harmonize them so that the tonality slightly shifts underneath, just to offer some little nugget of weird color for anyone who goes looking. Borrowing chords from the Phrygian mode (e.g. the♭II and♭III chords) has yielded some pretty nice results thus far. I haven’t really messed around with modulation yet (inspirations here would be Wye Oak’s “Glory” and Warpaint’s “Love Is to Die”), but I’m excited to come across a song that needs it.

Do you believe we’re living in a computer simulation?

Not “we”… I am living in the simulation. And all of you are NPCs.

What do you think the future of indie and art rock looks like?

It’s hard to say because indie is such an impossibly huge and undefinable genre that anything could be true. I think we’re starting to see “indie-pop” bands decide which half they want to choose, with some of the synthier stuff just sublimating into full EDM-pop, while others are putting away the vocal samplers and releasing albums with more of a live sound. The big shift that’s already underway is that the scene is becoming more demographically diverse. I’m excited to see how that impacts the music, especially in how it will breathe new life into genres that have historically been very homogenous.

I was hoping that we would see a proliferation of good protest music over the last few years, but we haven’t really, at least not within the indie sphere. I think that’s in some ways because we live in these constructed realities and/or echo chambers that stunt our capacity for critical self-awareness. That said, I think we are headed towards some kind of multifaceted political or cultural breaking point which I’m hoping will shake up the artistic community and eventually lead to higher-caliber output.

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